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Community editorial board: My watershed moment

The news on our world’s health is grim.

Yet we still pack up our lunch in a plastic baggy, jump into our car behind the wheel with no fellow passenger in sight, humming along to the radio as we drive past the slash-and-burn occurring in our neighbour’s farm field.

Where did we go so wrong that letters are being written to future generations in Iceland to acknowledge the death that actually occurred in 2014 of the once mighty glacier Okjökull?

Last week, I sat on my sister and brother-in-law’s dock on Cornwall Island looking out at the beauty of the St. Lawrence River and thought about the time when the surrounding industries were dumping their refuse and chemicals into this life-giving habitat. But as brother-in-law Bruce says, it took the death of cows for the media and politicians to pay attention to the fluoride contamination of the air and water in and around Akwesasne.

Now we are being bombarded by daily news of catastrophic proportions of tragedies in the natural world: pods of Orcas that cannot successfully breed, salmon unable to return to their spawning ground in northern B.C., and a growing list of endangered and extinct species within Canada.

Why are we not scared about climate change? What are we exactly waiting for – how big does it have to get on the scale of one to 10 for us, collectively, to say it is our problem and we will and must change?

Shocking still is the celebration of the space race, morphing into a new desire to live elsewhere, led by billionaires willing to pay millions for that first trip. Realistically the one per cent – or even more realistically, the one per cent of the one per cent – would be the only ones able to afford a trip to the moon or buy the first property on Mars, essentially escaping responsibility.

Where will that leave the rest of the world? Would we be choking on air that is no longer fit to breathe, walking through dust-ridden streets on a desperate search for clean water?

Industry, greed, profit, big business— we claim all of them as the culprits for these ills.

What if we started recognizing ourselves as culpable in this looming disaster and reflected on each daily act; would that be enough to help turn the tide that is staring us in the face?

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So, as I sat on the dock and listened to the gulls, while fishermen cast long and hard for their muskie, it became clearer to me those with the knowledge of what happened over 30 years ago in Akwesasne might have insights in how we can move forward as a community.

Through my brother-in-law’s introduction this week, I met with Bob “Trapper Bob” Stevenson at our farm to learn about our world through his eyes and experience as an educator and Cree-Métis leader.

Bob’s curriculum vitae contains an impressive list of accomplishments, including founding the Métis Federation of Canada. He is obviously most proud of his family history, being raised by his Cree great-grandmother, Agnes Desjarlais-Bourke in Fort Fitzgerald, Alta., and Fort Smith, N.W.T. He makes you think by stating he was “born in debt to the Hudson’s Bay Company,” an expression for us in the south that seems strange.

He quickly explained the system the outposts used to keep their trappers forever in a cycle of debt.

In September 1996, Bob was hired by Mohawk Council of Akwesasne to establish the Thompson Island Cultural Camp, a youth and elders’ camp. Moving from Yellowknife with his wife Marie, who is from Akwesasne, the initial desire was to keep students learning in Akwesasne and not outside of the community.

He worked alongside Henry Lickers, who headed the environment department, to make a proposal to the chiefs to set Thompson Island and 80 acres aside for the camp. Bob’s vision was for an international approach, bringing students and educators to the cultural camp “so that they can learn from the Mohawks and First Nations, Métis people that the environment should be properly looked after; and, learn the teachings you get from the land, animals, plants – whether they are medicine or edible or both.”

Bob credits his great-grandmother and grandfather for his knowledge of the medicines as they had no doctor to go to, and these are the life teachings he shares at the Thompson Island Cultural Camp. This sharing tells the truth of the concerns and knowledge his family had in living on the land, surviving on the land in the wild – 300 miles away from the closest city of Edmonton.

When I asked Bob for his reflections on the environmental issues of climate change today, he offered this insight, “You have to hope, you have to try. How we’ve been treated as a First Nations, Inuit or Métis people (partly revealed through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report), we must continue and try and share the knowledge, experience we have to keep trying or otherwise nothing will change.

“And hopefully things will change for the better.”

He also looks to the bureaucrats at both Canadian and First Nations’ councils to work to correct the wrongs and make things better.

But it was the death of a medicine man, a friend, who brought him to his strong belief in traditional medicine and he always wears the gift he had received from the medicine man, a bear claw necklace.

Now Bob starts his day with a ceremony and prayer of Thanksgiving.

“You give thanks for what is around you and, this is what the Thanksgiving Address is all about. You are supposed to do this, and this is similar to Catholics who prayer daily,” he explained.

When speaking about his grandchildren, you see Bob has faith in the future— his granddaughter Odyssey goes with his wife Marie to the Thompson Island Cultural Camp, volunteering and helping along with her younger sister, Piper.

These are the kind of actions he is hoping for students to see as an alternative to technology and other distractions, for living a better life and being more thankful. Bob’s advice at the end of our meeting, “Just learn the Thanksgiving Address from the Haudenosaunee.”

Where shall we go from here?

First and foremost, always question. Here in our region, it is critical for farmers to question the development of seeds that not only resist everything, but fertilizer that is smart enough to reduce the amount of nitrogen waste entering our environment. The depletion of the soil is not answered by a blade of grass or stalk of corn that can grow in Sahari-like conditions, but in not overproducing and simply letting the soil get a well-deserved rest. Our complacency in accepting all that big ag business sends as a solution is allowing a petri dish to dictate the future of our world.

When the bottom drops out and the soil no longer produces, where will those big ag companies be? Will those researchers be able to save your farm, save your reputation with the public? Only so long will the cry “Farmers Feed Cities” be welcomed, when policy makers can no longer ignore how farming practices and producers have pumped more nitrous oxide into our environment and destroyed the very soil food needs to grow in.

Think twice about solely practising conventional farming; introduce some traditional practices back into your acres of land like the older generation did. The public will trust your judgment, because you are the farmer, you stand on your land and the generations to come will thank you for the courage to say no to every solution offered by big ag.

It is that simple to reclaim our balance with the land, when we practise the knowledge we gain from individuals like Bob Stevenson. We can and should start our day by offering a prayer of thanks.

A short or long reflection on the beauty that is offered to us by the sound of the St. Lawrence River, the shore birds’ calls, and the rushes that move in a gentle summer’s breeze. We can ask for patience from the Creator as we sort out the mess we’ve created, one step at a time.

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